Follow me on this one. A developer has purchased the old Morgan Square apartment complex on Main Street. Each unit has a unique design but overall there is an abundance of beams and exposed brick walls. Of the market rate downtown residential properties developed in the late 70’s and the 80’s( Armoury Commons, Stockbridge Court, Ashford Place, Classical) it is the most integrated with its urban environs. The last three decades have taken some of the luster off of the apartment interiors, with the kitchens and bathrooms looking both worn and out of date. The loft designs, the building exteriors, and even the landscaping have worn well, however.
The original Morgan Square transformed this:
Using public money:
With the MGM project coming in at the southern end of Main Street and the Union Station project moving forward to the north the now rechristened “Silverbrick Lofts” are strategically located between the two in hopes of catching the hoped for wave of renters wanting to be where the action is. Not a ridiculous strategy, and one which I hope will prove successful for them and for the downtown as a whole.
But there is a problem.
You see, that stretch of the north blocks of Main Street has, even for downtown Springfield, a disproportionately high percentage of ne’er do wells and street people. Many a social service provider has a storefront along that stretch and the bus station sits just beyond the railroad arch a block or so away. My favorite restaurant, Panjabi Tadka, sits just across the street more or less from the Silverbrick Lofts and the walk north beyond Fort Street is never a pleasant one. I must be honest and admit that I have chosen to drive down and park on Gridiron Street rather than run that gauntlet.
The new management at Silverbrick has heard these complaints as well, but are determined to make the biggest mistake they could possibly make in the face of this challenge by fencing in a now public courtyard. I’ll make no comment on the legality of fencing in a public way improved with public funds because apart from that, it is a stupid idea. Stupid on the level of “the new Coke” or the Edsel, wearing a Yankee cap to Fenway Park or vacationing in Florida. Stupid.
Why is it that the Silverbrick developers have jumped on this opportunity to invest tens of millions of dollars in a market rate downtown residential complex? Why do they think people with the means to live anywhere in the greater Springfield area will choose to live in their newly refurbished apartments? Because of the synergy being created by other developments in the downtown. In isolation they never would have contemplated this.
As Andrés Duany so eloquently puts it, people live in suburbia for their backyards, and live in cities for what is outside their front door. Renters at high end apartment complexes choose suburbia for the private amenities they afford: pools, tennis courts, and golf courses, along with the ease of automobile use suburbia provides. People choose high end apartments in urban areas expecting to live in beautiful buildings in apartments with elegance and style, yes, but the equivalent of the pool, the tennis court and the golf course is THE CITY ITSELF. The ease of car centered mobility which is lost is to be made up by the walkable urbanity of the nearby streets. Take all that away, or sever yourself from it, and you have once again designed a city for those who don’t like cities and completely lost your competitive advantage.
This will be the scenario. The beautiful courtyard, built with public money by the way, is now fenced off from the general public. There are no pan handlers, there are no street people meandering through. Just a lovely courtyard. A lovely, empty, completely dead courtyard. Why completely dead? What reason is there to be there? It was designed as a transit point, a cut through. Look at the clock. It is meant to provide the time for people hurrying by on the way to their next appointment. Without the coming and going there is no reason to be in the plaza and it has all of the sterility of a faux plaza in a faux development of a faux place…but without the pool, the tennis court, the golf course, and the quick and easy drive to Starbucks. The plaza is completely secure, and totally empty.
The entire value added that Silverbrick means to capture rests with synergy of this place with all of the other “places” around it. If the residents of Silverbrick are too scared of their neighborhood to wander through their own courtyard then, yes, the project is doomed. But no less so than if they fear leaving that courtyard to experience the street beyond because that which the street beyond contains is the only reason to pay a premium to live at Silverbrick and the fence not only does nothing to change that street, but its presence along that street sends a message to resident and visitor alike that this is not a safe place.
What to do then? Take steps to create programming within the plaza. Provide positive uses, invite the public, make it a place to engage with the neighborhood in an affirming way. Look at One Financial Plaza; some piped in music, some tables and chairs, a hot dog cart, and a fountain, and you’ve got the most consistently happening place there is downtown. Walk a few potential residents by the equivalent of that on a spring afternoon and your granite countertops and stainless steel appliances will sparkle that much more.
One more time, the design of a development should assume its own success. Designing for failure will only bring failure. If the streets around Silverbrick Lofts remain sketchy, the project will fail, fence or no fence. A lifeless, isolated, albeit safe courtyard can be had anywhere, and the potential tenants are really then only left with the downside of urban living. They will need to drive to do everything they do because it will be only the fence that protects them from the “evil-doers”.
Leaving the plaza as it is presents a difficulty in the short term, I have no doubt. Current residents have had experiences like mine just a block away in front of Panjabi Tadka, only on a more frequent basis as, unfortunately, they spend more time at their residence than I do at my favorite restaurant. Silverbrick’s leadership team needs to put in the hard work to maintain the permeability of the complex and its integration with its surrounding streetscape while giving the current residents a greater feeling of safety and security. Reading “City” by William Whyte, visiting the Project for Public Spaces website, and talking to Evan Plotkin, the genius behind the success of One Financial Plaza, should help them on their way. Perhaps even a perusal of the “What’s Right, What’s Wrong” feature here at RationalUrbanism might help, you never know!